A Title IX Witch Trial

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Attending the disgraced philosophy professor Peter Ludlow’s dismissal hearing was like watching someone being burned at the stake in slow motion, except this execution was catered — the university provided lavish spreads of food and snacks, and the atmosphere was surprisingly cordial. The five Northwestern faculty members empaneled to hear the case were striving to make clear that they were neutral and not prejudging anything, which meant pleasant chitchat at breaks or in the ladies’ room, mostly about the food. We were, after all, in the Midwest. Even the university lawyers were pleasant. The whole thing dragged on for over a month, which meant a lot of chitchat and a lot of calories. I was tense, and overate.

Torch the miscreant, resanctify the community. It was the campus equivalent of a purification ritual, and purifying communities is no small-scale operation these days: In addition to the five-person faculty panel, there were three outside lawyers, at least two in-house lawyers, another lawyer hired by the university to advise the faculty panel, a rotating cast of staff and administrators, and a court reporter taking everything down on a little machine. Ludlow had his lawyer (and on one occasion, two). And there was me.

One of Ludlow’s lawyers had contacted me a few weeks earlier to ask if I’d be willing to act as Ludlow’s “faculty support person” at the hearing. I was surprised by the request: Ludlow and I didn’t know each other, but he was such a pariah on campus I suspect there was no one else to tap. And even though we hadn’t met, our situations were already somewhat intertwined.

Let me explain. After I wrote an essay for The Chronicle Review in February 2015 that briefly mentioned Ludlow’s sexual-misconduct case, students marched to the president’s office with a petition against me; a short time later, two grad students filed Title IX complaints, charging that I’d created a hostile environment on campus, among other allegations. I’d argued that the new codes banning professor-student dating infantilized students — this wasn’t feminism, it was paternalism, I said — and vastly increased the power of administrators over our lives. As if seeking to prove my point, here were students demanding that campus administrators protect them from someone’s ideas.

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